Prof. Sound’s Drum Tuning Bible

Scott Johnson (a.k.a. Prof. Sound): Now 45 residing in Indianapolis, IN USA, played since 13. Raised in the Chicago, IL USA area, owned/operated first studio at 17. Focus was on Rock, Progressive Rock and Country music. Had brief personal involvement with Jazz great Louis Bellson. Moved to Nashville TN at about 20 years of age. Designed and managed the manufacturing of recording studio electronics for Harrison systems, premier company for music, film and production studios electronics.

Designed and built wiring systems for touring sound companies as well as speakers and monitors. Worked with and in a variety of recording studios along with a number of top country writers that have multiple platinum and gold hits to their credit. Engineered and did live/studio drumming until 29 at which time left music started a company which is today recognized as one of the most technologically advanced recycler’s of electronics and plastic in the world. In ’98 start playing again (no live work) and is currently recording and building a new project/drum studio specifically for drum tracks and own enjoyment with a focus on Light Jazz and Country.

Motivation behind the Drum Tuning Bible

The musical ability of someone playing drums is not synonymous with an ability to technically understand it. You don’t have to play at all to know how to tune a drum. Because you are musically proficient, does not mean you can or know how to explain how to make a drum sound the way you want it. I felt I could explain it in a way, which was understandable, and with the detail missing from other articles and the typical responses on the subject.

I don’t know everything, but having been in the market for a new set and experiencing misinformation at all levels, I felt I could help transmit accurate knowledge on the art and science of the technical side of the drum, head selection and tuning issues. The DT Bible is my attempt to make it readily available, all in one place to everyone for the price it should be, FREE!

Admittedly, the guide that follows is geared more toward the player who is professional or inspires to be professional and wants to know how to achieve control over the drum and drum set sound generated. I feel whether you’re a beginner or have played 20 years or more, you’ll gain something from it. This is not the type of guide, which states, “Put 2 turns on one side and then a few more on the other side”. This goes into great detail in an attempt to teach those who really want to understand what their entire drum set can do and may have been lost for years wondering why or how certain things work. It requires time, patience, thinking and work.

If you’re looking for a shortcut to great sound, you just may find it in the knowledge you gain from this article, once you apply it. Finally, if you read the entire “bible”, it should also aid you in choosing a drum set to fulfill your dreams.

These are some of the issues covered within various sections of the bible:

Difference between heads, when to use what.
How to make drums resonant, fat, punchy, open, less/more ring.
How microphones affect the choice of heads.
The fundamental note of a drum versus pitch and timbre.
The difference material and construction make in the tuning and overall drum sound.
Example head setups and results.
Snare buzz or sympathetic vibration issues.
Snare replacement, tension and choice issues.
How to get more articulation, volume, crack, sensitivity and warmth from a snare drum.
Example of tuning sequences and tuning to notes.
Kick drum muffling and choice of heads.
Hoops or Rims.
Bearing Edges.
Truths of Drums

1. The interval between drums is more important than many realize and size is the key to get even resonance and the incremental notes between drums. Diameter has a greater impact on tuning that does depth. See “Shell Depth versus Diameter”

2. The tiniest of movements on the tuning lug “can” make huge differences and raise pitch drastically, more so with a rigid hoop, such as cast. Moreover, tweaks of the lugs on the resonant side are more prone to raising pitch than are ones on the batter side.

3. A sound or tuning, which works for a small venue will not work as well for a large venue. You have to consider what component of your sound will carry through to the audience. For example head selection for microphones will likely be different than without. A highly resonant kit may be your sound tech’s worst nightmare. While the drummer can be inspired by this tone, a large venue or recording may result in a very muddy sound due to the overtones and lingering decay of the drum mixed with all the other instruments or acoustics.

In large venues under close micing techniques, its typical for drummers to use 2-ply heads because the sound is more muffled or controlled. You get a shorter burst of energy, which by virtue of the hall or venue, reverberates or becomes delayed to the audience. Much the same as large venues require a more selective or simplistic placement of notes and fills because the audience does not hear the detail.

4. Get to know the utilization of microphones well if you’re going to use them, even slight alterations in placement make a huge difference. For example, placing a mic near the outside edge of a drum can bring out the high-pitched overtones. But move it in just a ½” and those diminish dramatically.

5. All drums sound different at 0, 15, 50, 150 foot or differing distances. So what sounds good to the drummer while playing may be terrible to the audience, in whatever forms the audience takes. Its important to go out and listen to what your kit sounds like while the other instruments are playing. Move around and make head selections and tunings accordingly. A higher pitch enables the drum to carry more, lower pitches less so.

6. The sound heard from a CD at home is not what a drum really sounds like but on few occasions. What you hear is usually an altered version recorded according to what the producer and the artist wants it to sound like through alterations and to fit the recording at hand. Sometimes you just cannot duplicate your drum gods sound without the electronics.

7. This tuning method works for ALL DRUMS.

8. Less expensive does not mean inferior, in some cases, it may be far superior to achieve the desired end-result. For example a birch shell or beech shell with flanged hoops, while less expensive than a maple shell with cast hoops, may provide the feel and penetrating sound you need on a snare drum.

9. The air hole or vent in the shell is to allow the shell to breath when two heads are used and atmospheric changes occur, thereby helping to eliminate moisture build-up. This is a typical problem moving from cold to hot environments much the same as glass windows can sweat in your house. The vents have little effect on tone.

10. Yes, you should stretch heads (within reason) on all drums; it’s called “seating” and is the most important and often most overlooked step in getting quality sound and consistency out of a drum.

Continue to Part 2: Fundamentals of Tuning